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15 December 2009

For years, Beirut has been dealing – and not always through choice – with most of the issues at stake in our modern societies, from political and economic crises, to religious cohabitation, to issues of heritage and nation building, to outright open war. Architects, city planners and philosophers should take note.

And actually they are. Les Halles, the centre for contemporary arts in Brussels, has been staging an ongoing festival this month about Lebanon, which included a one-day symposium on “Beirut, city of oblivion? Beirut, a city without history”.

Prominent Lebanese architects, writers, film-makers and poets, who were freshly arrived from Lebanon and unprepared for a gloomy December in Brussels, debated everything from Gérard de Villiers’ politico-erotic book SAS Mort a Beyrouth to the city’s Hobbesian reflexes in times of war and a property boom.

Can Beirut continue to be a place of coexistence? asked architect Jade Tabet, with a touch of panic, following a slide show of glitzy towers built on the rubble of Beirut’s historic centre. At an urban and architectural level, the answer seems to be yes. Beirut has shaped itself around different beliefs. When the French colonial powers tried to redesign the city in the 1920s, the “Place de l’Etoile”, a thoroughfare near the Parliament whose name echoes the star-shaped square in Paris, had two branches amputated to accommodate a church and a mosque. And last autumn, the new souks had to incorporate a 14th-century Mamluk mosque that happened to be in the middle of what is essentially a shopping mall. “God and business have always lived side by side in Beirut,” explained one of the speakers.

Many other philosophical debates have found answers in the city. “The demise of left and right wing ideologies occurred in war-torn Beirut before the fall of the Berlin Wall,” argued Lebanon’s most prominent novelist, Elias Khoury. And many ideas behind post-modernism, premiered here too.

Take the absence of a shared history. “The Lebanese have always liked to live outside of history,” said the poet Abbas Beydoun. Living for the moment if you will, and blaming their neighbours for the rest. With no monuments or street names to weigh you down, successive waves of newcomers find it easy to weave in their own narrative – a setback if you’re trying to build a nation state but an asset in the age of multiculturalism.

Which leads to an interesting question many European states will soon face: can you build a state without a nation? Can Beirut continue to exist if Lebanon (or the idea of Lebanon) falls apart?

There are few national heroes that bind the Lebanese together. Yet last year, when the West was hit by the credit crunch, the Lebanese took pride in their banking system that not only thwarted the crisis but capitalised on it. The sense of perpetual “latent” crisis, which has toughened Beirutis (and their banking system) over generations, had in fact prepared them for the worst. After all, this is a city built by refugees fleeing regional catastrophes.

And quite fittingly, it was the Palestinian ambassador to the EU who made the closing remarks to the symposium. Recollecting her childhood in Beirut, she put her finger on the city’s creative openness and pragmatic attitude. Qualities, one realises, that go beyond the finer attributes of textbook city planning.


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